On the first day of the 2012 Virginia spring season, I journeyed to the Franklin County farm where I have gone afield the past four openers and where I will likely be this April 13 when the season begins. In the darkness, I made my way to the top of a Virginia-pine covered ridge, hoping to hear toms somewhere below me or perhaps in some pines that form the perimeter of a wheat field that adjoins the ridge. I also had an ear cocked toward a pine flat some 300 yards behind me.
But when dawn broke, I heard no birds sound off behind or below me. I did detect three longbeards gobbling several hundred yards beyond the field below. I quickly ran toward those birds, but no more gobbles were forthcoming from the trio — or for that matter any other tom turkey on the property. At noon, I headed glumly for my Botetourt County home.
Over the next fortnight, I hunted every morning in Botetourt, even going during a moderate rain before I headed to the school where I teach. But I never was able to call in any gobblers, and I was similarly never able to forget about those three opening morning Franklin dandies.
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So on Friday, April 27, I called the Franklin County landowner and asked him two questions. Had anyone killed any of the opening morning trio, and had anyone hunted that spot since I had been there? The gentleman's answer to both questions was no and then he invited me to return on Saturday for another go-round with his birds.
So it was on the third Saturday of our season, I was standing on the same ridge where I had waited for rosy-fingered dawn on opening day. This time the only sounds that greeted me came from crows and songbirds. Extremely frustrated, I left for a three-hour jaunt across the far reaches of the Franklin farm, never hearing a tom and blundering across several hens.
Then at 9:30, I decided to make three assumptions: that the gobbler trio was still in the same woodlot, that they were likely henned up, and that if I came to the logging road that runs through the woodlot and called softly every 15 minutes or so, I would have a better chance of success than if I continued my random roaming.
By 9:45, I was sitting against a massive red oak that lies 20 yards off the old tote road and that offers a good view up and down the byway and that also lies within 60 yards of the wheat field — should any longbeard decide to go there to strut. I emitted several soft hen clucks with a slate, yelped lightly with a diaphragm, and rested my Remington 12 gauge autoloader across my knees.
At 10:00 a.m., I repeated the call sequence and five minutes later, I heard two distant hen clucks. I clucked once in response and at 10:10 she appeared and gave a "where are you cluck," which I responded to with a barely audible (to me) cluck. Seemingly satisfied, she continued down the road — and then I saw him. He was clearly an overgrown tom and just as clearly had his eyes locked on the hen.
When the old boy's head moved behind an oak just off the logging road, I mounted the autoloader and when the tom came around the other side, I was left with an exceptionally easy 25-yard shot. The gobbler was my biggest ever Virginia bird in terms of weight (21 pounds, 4 1/2 ounces) and also had a 9 3/4-inch beard and 1 1/8-inch spurs.
The shot also ended my spring season, as I had killed two fall birds. Hunters can kill only three turkeys per license year: three bearded birds may be killed in the spring provided none were killed in the fall. Hunters can also kill one fall turkey of either sex and two spring bearded birds. This spring, Youth Day is April 6, all day hunting begins on May 6, and the season runs through May 18.
QUICK LOOK BACK
Gary Norman, wild turkey project leader for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) reports that the state's turkey population has averaged an annual 1.2 percent decline over the last decade, meaning that the harvest has been fairly stable. There comes a point in any state's turkey harvest where a leveling off occurs, and we apparently have arrived at that stage, at least on a statewide basis.
Currently, Norman notes that the highest turkey numbers on average exist in the South Piedmont and Tidewater regions, which makes sense when we examine the 2012 harvest figures.
Statewide, the harvest was 15,326 turkeys, just 2 percent lower than the 2011 tally of 15,698. East of the Blue Ridge (EBR), the harvest actually rose 1 percent, inching up to 10,527 from 10,429. But West of the Blue Ridge (WBR) the tally plunged 9 percent to 4,799 from 5,265. Anecdotally, most of the WBR sportsmen that contacted me reported seeing fewer turkeys. Anecdotally, though I live in Botetourt and have permission to hunt many farms in that county as well as in Craig and Roanoke counties, when Saturday comes and I have all day to hunt, I head EBR to Franklin.
These regional differences also can be seen in the long-term trend results over the past 10 years. EBR sees a kill per square mile figure of 0.63, an uptick of 5.6 percent over the past decade. WBR sees a kill per square mile figure of 0.59, a decline of 5.0 percent during that same time. Although there are counties WBR that are showing gains and counties EBR showing declines, the counties with the most impressive turkey numbers are overwhelming in the eastern reaches of the Commonwealth.
A LOOK AHEAD
The kill per square mile figures can give real insight on which counties state sportsmen should strive to gain access to private land for this spring. For example, Virginia features 16 counties that have attained Tier 4 status, basically meaning that have a kill per square mile figure of 0.90 or greater. The only mountain county among them is Grayson (1.00). Some of these counties, and they are eastern domains, boast simply incredible kill rates: Westmoreland (2.0), Richmond (1.90), Northumberland (1.43), Lancaster (1.37), and Surry (1.36). If you have friends or relatives who own rural land in these counties, or if you are inclined to knock on doors, I would certainly be looking to gain permission to hunt in one of those counties.
Conversely, some of the counties have low percentages and some simply abysmal ones, and these are considered Tier 1 counties. For example, I have several friends who live and hunt in Alleghany County and they constantly bemoan the lack of turkeys. The domain's kill per square mile figure of 0.37 suggests that my buddies have a legitimate reason to grumble. I turned down two offers to turkey hunt in Alleghany County last year.
Other Tier 1 counties and their figures include such western counties as Highland (0.24), Bath (0.26), Buchanan (0.39), and Augusta (0.41). Folks hunting on public or private land in those counties this spring could find mature toms scarce. To be fair to the WBR domains, some EBR counties also have low numbers of turkeys. For instance, York (0.24) and Prince William (0.33) seemed to have missed out on the turkey boom occurring in much of the region, which leads to another point.
Turkey reproduction is a local phenomenon, not only on a county by county basis but also on even a rural parcel by rural parcel basis. Some parcels traditionally contain birds, some only in certain years, and some places never seem to host turkeys. That's why pre-season scouting is so important.
TOP 10 COUNTIES
While perusing the kill per square mile figures, I thought it might be illustrative to take a look at the top 10 harvest counties, in order to see how many made both lists. The 2012 top ten counties by total kill are as follows: Bedford (493), Pittsylvania (425), Halifax (378), Franklin (375), Southampton (368), Scott (298), Surry (265), Grayson (253), and Westmoreland (246).
In short, only two counties made both the square mile and overall harvest lists: Bedford and Westmoreland. Westmoreland was the 10th best county in terms of kill, but the best in the state in terms of the square mile index. Bedford was the leading county in terms of numbers, but ninth in the square mile configuration. Both of these domains would be superb destinations this spring.
Hunters always want to know where their home counties ranked in the top 10 harvest tallies. But, in my opinion, the top 10 harvest chart is not the relevant ranking — the kill per square mile one is. The counties that make the top ten list often do so only because they are large in size.
For example, Pittsylvania came in second in the harvest, but according to the square mile data is a Tier 3 county with a 0.68 figure. That figure is a very respectable one, but also one that is lower than several dozen other Virginia counties. Pittsylvania County is a very large county and it has a solid turkey contingent, but it is not an other-worldly place to turkey hunt, despite what the turkey harvest figures say.
One of the most important factors regarding spring gobbler hunting is poult production. Gary Norman weighs in on this topic.
"We've recently changed brood survey methods and it will take some time to develop a new baseline for annual comparisons," he said. "Based on anecdotal reports I received during the summer of 2012, reproduction looked good.
"Our early spring weather in 2012 made for a reproductive season that many believe was two weeks ahead of schedule. June and July had some significant storm events, which could have resulted in some poult losses. On the positive side, temperatures during the spring storms were generally mild. Wet and cold factors are generally not a problem individually, but when combined brood losses can reach 50 percent."
In 2011, poult production was generally regarded as being above normal, which should mean good numbers of 2-year-olds in many areas. Again, to emphasize this point, all reproduction is local.
PUBLIC LAND DESTINATIONS
As all the harvest figures indicate, the Tidewater region hosts the most turkeys, so some public lands in this part of the state should be looked at first. One of the newest state public lands is the Big Woods WMA (2,208 acres) in Sussex County. The VDGIF only has the kill per square mile figure on a county-wide basis, but Sussex is rated a Tier 2 domain with a very respectable figure of 0.80. What's more, turkey numbers there are on the upswing.
Another new Tidewater public land is the Cavalier WMA (3,800 acres) in the city of Chesapeake. Chesapeake only has a ratio of 0.22, but turkey numbers have greatly increased in recent years. If I lived in this part of the state, I would definitely do some pre-season scouting on this WMA.
The Southern Piedmont is another region red hot for turkeys right now, and a relatively new public land exists there, the Featherfin WMA (2,800 acres) in Prince Edward, Appomattox, and Buckingham counties. The first two countiess have square mile figures of 0.62 and 0.59, respectively, the latter only 0.33. Featherfin features an almost ideal mix of woodlands, fields, and streams, so this is another WMA worth visiting during the scouting season.
Of course, the predominant public land in the mountains is the 1.7 million-acre George Washington and Jefferson National Forest. Since turkey populations vary wildly by county, perspective national forest hunters simply must scout individual parcels they may want to hunt this spring.
I can hardly wait for opening day of our spring gobbler season. I'm betting many of you feel the same way.
Arkansas turkey hunting is still on life support, but it's showing remarkable signs of improvement. After a record year in 2003, Arkansas fell to 9,000 birds harvested in 2012 — 11,000 less birds in a 10-year span. The state has responded by cutting back on hunting opportunities, and it feels confident numbers will slowly rise.
For more information about turkey hunting in Arkansas, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
The turkey population in most areas is robust this year and hunter success should be high. As usual, several factors will come into play, including the timing of breeding phases and inclement weather. The turkeys are there and the trick is to persist until you find yourself in the right place at the right time.
For more information about turkey hunting in California, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
With the ability to hunt two species of wild turkey in the same state, Florida hunters definitely have an edge. Although Florida doesn't do statewide turkey assessments, officials believe numbers will be as strong and impressive as last year.
For more information about turkey hunting in Florida, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Turkey populations for 2013 are estimated to be around 335,000, which has remained steady since 2010. The numbers are very solid — even more impressive when you consider they were around 17,000 in 1973. Much like last year, hunters in Georgia can expect a great chance at a turkey again in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Georgia, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
It's hard to conceive of a better place to hunt turkeys than the Great Plains region. You can buy multiple permits across states, seasons are liberal in length and you can hunt Rios, Easterns and Merriam's in the same state. It doesn't get much better than that.
In Nebraska, 32,520 permits were issued and 21,419 turkeys were harvested in 2012 — that's a 62 percent success rate, well above the national average (25 percent).
For more information about turkey hunting in the Great Plains region, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast for Kansas , Nebraska
, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Illinois turkey numbers in 2012 grew to 15,121, which was better than an already impressive showing in 2011. Will the same trend prove true in 2013? According to biologists, turkey numbers are still strong, but the state DNR is taking a wait-and-see approach.
Northern Illinois typically provides the best harvest numbers, with 8,935 turkeys taken in 2012. The southern part of the state was still at an impressive 7,006 turkeys harvested. Biologists in Illinois predict that turkey numbers in 2013 will be the same, or slightly improved, from last year, which is great news for hunters.
For more information about turkey hunting in Illinois, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Despite warmer conditions in 2012, hunters killed 12,655 turkeys in Indiana, which made for a solid year. Does that mean 2013 is set up to be a great year? Biologists in Indiana are hesitant to make that bold of a prediction, especially since brood numbers haven't been that great in recent years. This has mainly affected the number of jakes harvested.
Even with some of these concerns, state biologists are optimistic about turkey production in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Indiana, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Turkey harvest numbers were up slightly in 2012 from the year prior — a positive trend for turkey hunters in Iowa. With a robust youth season and strong adult harvest numbers the last couple of years, state officials think 2013 is going to be a strong year as well.
For more information about turkey hunting in Iowa, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
With strong survival and nesting numbers in 2012, officials in Kentucky are predicting another solid year in 2013. Despite two years of odd weather, Kentucky has maintained strong numbers all around. Officials also believe a dry spell actually helped more than it hurt.
For more information about turkey hunting in Kentucky, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
According to biologists, this spring's hunting in Louisiana should be a bit tougher than last year's. In some areas the birds had a hard time in the spring of 2011, resulting in both poor nesting success and adult bird mortality. That doesn't mean the turkey population is in trouble, but it does mean hunters may be in for a couple of years of more challenging hunting.
For more information about turkey hunting in Louisiana, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Michigan has not had a banner turkey hatch in several years, but it looks like 2012 may provide just that. As a result, Joe Robison of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources predicts 2013 will be a fantastic year for turkey hunters.
With an already impressive population of right at 200,000 birds in 2012, Robison predicts that number will increase this year. Also, Michigan has a high success rate — 36 percent — which should make for an exciting turkey hunting season.
For more information about turkey hunting in Michigan, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Minnesota had a great spring for nesting in 2012, something that should bring great turkey hunting this year. While in the past hunters had to traverse to the southern part of the state if they wanted to bag a turkey, numbers have rapidly expanded all across the state.
"I'm thrilled with what turkeys are doing in Minnesota," Tom Glines, National Wild Turkey Federation regional director, said. According to Glines, lottery tags are up 10 percent in many areas, and 20 percent in others. All that means lots of opportunity in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Minnesota, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Mississippi boasts one of the largest wild turkey populations in the country. And with over a quarter million of these birds scattered from the Tennessee line to the Gulf of Mexico, hunters should have no problem finding a gobbler to chase on opening morning.
For more information about turkey hunting in Mississippi, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
The Missouri Department of Conservation estimates the state's current spring turkey population is at around 300,000 birds. Unfortunately, poor production in recent times has caused a decline in the turkey population, due to abnormally wet periods during nesting and hatching periods. However, because the last two years were so good in terms of production, it is likely 2013 will be a high water mark, which is great news for hunters.
For more information about turkey hunting in Missouri, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
There are no two ways about it — New England is stocked full of turkeys, which is great news for hunters in 2013. With an estimated turkey population of 214,000, hunters have great chances to tag a bird. Maine has the highest numbers, while New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts are not far behind.
For more information about turkey hunting in New England, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
While turkey hunting numbers should remain somewhat steady, early data in North Carolina suggests the downward trend of turkey populations may continue into the 2013 season. Almost 20 percent of turkeys harvested in 2012 were jakes, which means less mature turkeys this year. State officials also recommend hunting federal lands, though permits are required for these particular hot spots.
For more information about turkey hunting in North Carolina, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Ohio looks to be in good shape for the 2013 turkey hunting season, with great populations of birds across the state. Officials estimate 2013 and 2014 will both be great years, with harvest rates predicted to be around 18,000 birds.
For more information about turkey hunting in Ohio, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Depending on what happens with the drought, Oklahoma officials predict the 2013 turkey season will be a mirror of what happened last year. The state had solid numbers, despite obviously dry conditions. That said, the drought definitely had a negative impact on overall turkey numbers state wide. Numbers are still strong — 55,747 turkeys in the western region alone — but down 9 percent from last year.
For more information about turkey hunting in Oklahoma, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
States like Oregon and Washington, both in the Pacific Northwest, have an optimistic turkey outlook for 2013. The southwest corner of Oregon is the state's typical hot spot for turkey hunting, and it looks good this year as well. Since 2011, the Melrose unit in southwest Oregon has a 51 percent success rate, which is well above the national average.
Washington figures not to be far behind, with a success rate of 36 percent last year and a harvest of 5,600 birds. The hottest areas are in northeast part of the state.
For more information about turkey hunting in the Pacific Northwest, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Pennsylvania turkey numbers have continued to rise and fall over the last few years, but the good news is results have been consistently stable. According to officials with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, population numbers have dropped off a little, but that was after a roaring boom in the 2000's. They also predict a solid year for turkeys in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Pennsylvania, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
When most sportsmen think of Colorado, Wyoming and much of the Rocky Mountain region, they think of monster mulies and bugling elk. And for good reason. But with a turkey hunting success rate of 25 percent in Colorado — on par with the national average — and 70 percent for non-residents in Wyoming, it's also a great place to track down a turkey.
For those hunters lucky enough to draw a limited tag, there is usually a success rate of 55 percent. Hunting Rio Grandes is a bit tougher, as the tag usually takes about 3 to 4 years to acquire.
For more information about turkey hunting in the Rocky Mountain region, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
After two productive years for wild turkeys, South Carolina looks to be in good shape for the 2013 turkey season. According to state officials, some of the best places to hunt are public land areas like those in the Sumer National Forest. With good production since 2010, these areas are full of 2-year-old gobblers.
For more information about turkey hunting in South Carolina, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Coming off great turkey harvest years in 2010 and 2012 — with 37,000 and 33,789 birds harvested, respectively — things look good again for Tennessee in 2013. Amazingly, Tennessee harvested 30,000 birds every year for the last decade, which says a lot about its ability to produce great turkey hunting year after year.
For more information about turkey hunting in Tennessee, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Virginia state officials believe the state is in the midst of a leveling off period, which means consistent turkey harvest rates statewide. Turkey populations have dropped by about 1.2 percent over the last decade, but harvest numbers have remained strong.
For more information about turkey hunting in Virginia, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
In 2012, West Virginia saw a fairly substantial decline in turkey harvest numbers, which was probably affected by low brood numbers dating back to 2009. Likewise, state officials believe a strong hatch in 2011 should translate into much improved harvest numbers for 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in West Virginia, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Wisconsin has consistently been rising in turkey production each year, and this year it looks like it has reached a place of dynamic stability — turkeys are present everywhere in hearty numbers. In 2012, 42,612 turkeys were harvested — a 6 percent increase over the previous year.
Likewise, a mild winter and early spring appear to have helped turkeys pull off successful broods, according to the state DNR. With 82 percent of broods consisting of toms last year, biologists say hunting should be great in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Wisconsin, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
State officials in Alabama say 2012 was a solid year for turkey hunters across the state. They predict 2013 will be much of the same, with good poult production to show for the last couple of years. As is the case in many states, quality turkey production in Alabama has come as a result of good habitat management.
Private land in Alabama offers some of the best hunting options, though a $16 permit gives you access to Wildlife Management Area lands that are also prime hunting grounds for turkeys.
For more information about turkey hunting in Alabama, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
According to state officials, there are around 500,000 Rio Grande turkeys living in Texas, meaning there are lots of opportunities for hunters across the state. The state also had above average survival rates, which should make for a great season in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Texas, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.